Gentlemen Cordite, Lieutenant Commander Warwick
edited by Nicholas Bracegirdle
The Mess Jackets
(Sub Lieutenants & Above)
Even Captains need cool feet after dancing the night away. Here is how four young officers resisted temptation and won a "horse' neck " for so-called valour in unconventional dress.
The four, young, bachelor naval officers had dined, wined, danced and supped very well indeed. It was the night, and now nearly morning, of the annual Navy league ball at the Trocadero, Sydney.
They were a merry party and their female partners had just been convoyed home. Now, it was 0400 at Man O' War Steps, a famous ship's landing jetty off Farm Cove, Sydney. Many a load of seamen, officers, men and marines must have waited at the exact spot and especially during the early settlement days when rum was bartered ashore in New South Wales.
There were no boats, Navy or shore hire, in sight. To wait in mess kit until the 0600 ship's milk boat was out of the question. The four gallants dressed in blue mess jackets, white waistcoats, Wellington boots, caps and blue boat cloaks had to appreciate the situation. This Council of War took place by the hurricane lantern of "George's" hot dog and coffee stall, a two wheeled "cafe de wheels" patronized by sailors of all nations. Over coffee, George was not optimistic over the chance of hiring a launch. He suggested the temporary loan of the old skiff on the slipway and also offered some box lids as paddles.
In a flash it was done. The immaculately clad figures, draped in boat cloaks, launched the boat, piled in and paddled hilariously away. They progressed in the general direction of their Destroyer, secured head and stern to two buoys in the cove. The paddles splashed, the hilarity increased as the skiff was found to be leaking like a sieve. Nearing the Destroyer's port ladder calls of "Quartermaster please throw us a line" - "Say, do mind my mess jacket" was followed by subdued giggles of mirth.
The Quartermaster threw a heaving line and with the boat almost sinking they reached the ladder and grabbed the rail. It was just dawn as they started to climb up the small ladder onto the quarter-deck. Suddenly - a wonderful sight came to their eyes which stifled their giggles. Sticking out of a scuttle, haloed in the morning light by a shining brass rim, were two bare, pink feet. The Captain's feet!
It was a warm night. The Captain of the Destroyer flotilla was a large man. He had also done his share of dancing that night and was cooling off his feet whilst sleeping in his bunk.
Resisting the strong fascination to tickle the feet, they climbed the Mediterranean ladder, saluted the quarter-deck, grinned at the very sympathetic Quartermaster and went happily to their bunks.
The Quartermaster went forward to call the duty boat's crew for the 0600 milk trip and told them to return the skiff. He then quietly piped "Wakey-wakey-wakey lash up and stow". The duty watch began to emerge from their hammocks. The duty cook stirred the morning cocoa and flashed up the galley for breakfast. A pair of pink feet stirred - one foot rubbed the other and they disappeared inside the scuttle. The duty watch of seamen prepared to scrub decks. It was Sunday morning. The remainder of the ship slept.
The Captain conducted Sunday prayers on the quarter-deck, as is the custom on the senior service, in ships carrying no Chaplain. It was noticeable that a certain group of young officers wore dark glasses at church. Also without batting an eyelid the Captain announced that all would sing the first three verses of "For those in peril on the sea". After prayers four tired young officers bearing certain signs of their gaiety heard the Captain say "Oh, First Lieutenant".
"I don't mind my officers having a darned good party, No. 1 - I expect it. But I do think dawn is a little late for returning in such an un-seaworthy craft in mess kit."
"Aye, aye Sir. I will speak to them."
A short pause followed by "Oh, No 1. Would you kindly ask the young gentlemen to report to me in my cabin. They may need a 'horses neck' (brandy and ginger ale) - it was a damned wet passage they had."
Four pairs of Wellington boots were hung in the officers' galley to air.
Four sets of mess jackets were dried, pressed and cleaned.